Women of the Durham Coalfield: Hannah's Story

Women of the Durham Coalfield: Hannah's Story

by Margaret Hedley, John Grundy

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The success of the Durham Coalfield and its important role in the Industrial Revolution is attributed to men of influence who owned the land and the pits, and men who worked in the coal-mining industry during the Victorian period. There has been very little written about the importance of the home life that supported the miners - their wives who, through heroic efforts, did their best to provide attractive, healthy, happy home for their husbands, often in appalling social conditions.To provide a welcoming atmosphere at home demanded tremendous resources and commitment from the miners' wives. Despite their many hardships these women selflessly put everyone in the family before themselves. They operated on less rest, less food at times of necessity and under the huge physical burden of work and the emotional burden of worry concerning the safety of their family.Women of the Durham Coalfield in the 19th Century: Hannah's Story addresses the lack of information about the role of women in the Durham Coalfield, engagingly explored through one woman's experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750991049
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 02/25/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Margaret has an MA in History and taught at secondary school. She is now a family history researcher in East Durham. Margaret is passionate about Duram's coal-mining history, and much of her research is related to this. She lives in Wheatley Hill.

Read an Excerpt



'Where's Thornley, Ma?' Hannah Hall, aged 14, asked her mother, Annie. The pair were sitting at a table set under the window in their colliery cottage at Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham. They were busy with needlework tasks; Annie was a seamstress and had overseen the development of her young daughter as a competent dressmaker.

'Thornley?' Annie repeated. 'Well, it's over Haswell way. Why do you want to know?'

'Well I heard me da telling you we were moving to Thornley and I don't want to go.'

'Oh, so where are you going then if the rest of the family move to Thornley? It's your da's job, and if he thinks we should move, then we have to go along with it and nobody will ask your opinion,' said Annie, not taking her eyes off the work in front of her.

'But I was born here in Hetton and my friends are here, and I'll never see them again if we move,' said a petulant Hannah.

'Well you've got one thing wrong lass, you weren't born in Hetton, you were born at Great Lumley and you moved here with us when you were only two.' Hannah was obviously shocked by this news.

'That's where me granda lives, I didn't know we used to live there. So why did we move here?'

'For the same reasons your da wants to move to Thornley, for a better job and a better house.'

Annie knew it was true that pitmen like Bill were always looking for a better job, better house, better opportunity. However, she also knew that conditions either at work or home never got any better, wherever they had lived. Both she and her husband, Bill Hall, had been born into coal mining families in the Durham coalfield, so she was used to hearing the grumbles of the miners and their wives. After all, she had been hearing them since she was a little girl growing near Chester-le-Street. She married Bill in 1819 at the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street and Bill had worked in a range of pits around that area before and since their marriage. Their move in 1822 from Great Lumley was prompted by the opening of a new pit in Hetton.

Coal in the east Durham area had long been thought to be hidden below the magnesian limestone strata. The existing coal owners, who didn't want to go to the expense of investigating the area, talked confidently of how there was 'no coal under the limestone'. However, geological reports found that the land was rich in coal but because of its position it would be expensive to extract. Boring through the limestone would also result in excessive water, which would require specialised pumping equipment, and a large capital investment. With the benefit of access to private bankers and investors, land agent Arthur Mowbray, an ex-employee of Sir Henry Vane-Tempest, set about creating an independent venture known as The Hetton Coal Company. This led the way for more pits to be opened up in the previously land-locked south-east Durham area, but while the pits were productive, working conditions were difficult.

Coal miners had been exploited by the owners for generations, and all had heard stories passed down of those who got rich from the labours of the men who were poorly paid and housed. However, when they heard that it wasn't one of the major land-owners planning to open a pit on the previously unexplored area in Hetton, many were only too happy to become involved. Not only was it the first pit to be drilled through the limestone, Hetton was also the first deep pit in the world and the first to be financed by money raised by private investors. Bill Hall was one of those excited by the new prospect. Already a coal hewer in the Lumley pit in 1822, he was prepared to move his family to Hetton to meet a new challenge for a different type of employer.

Coming from a mining family herself, Annie realised that she was required to support her husband and the decisions he made about his work and their lives. She may not relish the frequent moves of house, but she would never question Bill's decisions. It was her job to provide him with a happy and comfortable home to come back to after his work at the pit. The move to Thornley would take place in time for the new Bond year – which would be 1 April 1837. Annie dismissed Hannah's concerns. She knew that when Bill told Hannah they were moving, that would be that! Her daughter had a lot to learn if she felt her opinion would ever be taken into consideration, and it didn't matter how old she was. However, she couldn't help thinking that she wouldn't have dreamed of questioning her mother when she was Hannah's age.

Thomas Wood, one of the shareholders and a former accountant of the Hetton pit, had sold his shares for £324,000 to invest in a new venture and now owned and managed Thornley pit in East Durham, trading under the name of The Thornley Coal Company. Wood was a controversial figure in the coal industry. He was very much against the vend and in his role at Hetton refused to be regulated by the system. Nevertheless, the men trusted him because of his background.

The vend was a system whereby the major coal owners formed a consortium and decided how much coal each of them should be allowed to sell. By adhering to these rules it meant that no single owner was going to sell more coal than the others and the market would be equally shared between them. This was a rule that Wood and the Hetton Coal Company did not support. They felt entitled to sell as much coal as they could extract, and this decision made them unpopular with the land-owning coal owners.

Thornley was another previously land-locked area but with the arrival of the railways the coal could now be transported to Hartlepool port via Castle Eden station for sale on the London Coal Exchange.

It appeared that there were a lot of people making the move from Hetton to Thornley in time for the new Bond. Many of Hannah's friends would be joining her and her family in the new colliery houses that had just been completed in Thornley. Her father had told her that they were exactly like the one they lived in in Francis Street, Hetton, so everything would stay the same – except they would be in a different place.

It was a bitterly cold day when the Halls arrived by hired cart from Hetton with all their worldly goods. The journey was an arduous one as the tracks were so narrow and rutted, and with the amount of heavy rain that had fallen the horse had difficulty pulling the cart. Their house was part of a long terrace in Second Cross Row and the same as all the other houses in the area. The homes were hastily erected, functional and close to the pit head. The coal owners begrudged any money spent on the miners but as the location had previously been only agricultural, with no available accommodation, it was necessary to provide housing for the workers who would ultimately make them even richer than they already were. The miners didn't pay any rent for the cottages and were considered 'very lucky' by the owners, to be housed for free.

Unlike the Hetton houses, which were built of brick, the houses at Thornley were built of locally available magnesian limestone, which was porous and made the houses very damp. The Thornley houses became noted for their smoking chimneys and damp walls. There is no doubt that the building material was chosen to cut costs and to further reduce the financial outlay. In common with the Francis Street houses, their new one had a ladder propped up against the loft hatch where they could gain access to the loft space. Once up there, however, the family realised that they couldn't use the space as there wasn't a ceiling and the roof was so badly installed that the room was virtually open to the elements. As this had been a feature of their house at Hetton, the Halls knew that their sleeping arrangements would remain the same – parents and younger children in the parlour, older children in the kitchen on fold-away beds.

A big black range in the kitchen would provide heat, hot water and cooking facilities, and once Annie got it sorted it would be black-leaded every week to keep it looking good as the centrepiece of any room should look. The room that housed the kitchen range was about 14ft square and had to serve as bedroom, kitchen, dining room, wash-house, hospital and mortuary. It was up to the skill of the miner's wife to make a cosy home and due to the training received from their mothers, and their experience as housewives, many were able to create and maintain comfortable and attractive interiors to their colliery cottages and provide homes of which they were proud. To an outsider, the colliery village was a dreary and dirty place but to the pit families it was what they expected.

The street outside the cottages was unmade and in the winter, such as on the day the Halls arrived, it was very muddy. There was no footpath and entry into the property was straight off the muddy front road. The muck heap was just forming when the family moved in. The method of disposing of household and human waste before a sewerage system was installed in colliery villages was to throw it into the space between two rows of houses, creating an open sewer. The manager of the pit sent men to clean up this mess periodically throughout the year. The muck heap, as it was known, was recognised as a place where diseases could spread, with illnesses such as diarrhoea sweeping through whole communities and killing the very weak.

At the back of the property was a small enclosed back yard laid with 'quarrel' – broken bricks, sunk in the mud to make a solid surface. There was a small shed that would act as a coal store. Many of the houses were empty but would become occupied quickly, and certainly before Bond day on 31 March.

Bill and his daughters, Hannah and Mary, helped the carter unload their belongings into the house. Annie stayed inside to get the fire going. She remained silent as she heard her husband shouting at the girls, 'watch what you're doing with that clock,' 'don't leave that chair out here in the clarts', and other comments that indicated his rising stress levels. He might be able to work in the awful conditions of the pit but Bill, in common with the other pitmen, couldn't cope with parenting; that was a job for the women. Eventually the fire was providing heat and their furniture and other items were at least in the house. Annie made the carter a cup of tea before he set out on his journey back to Hetton in the gathering dusk.

The next day Annie and the girls worked hard to make the dreary house into a home. The furniture possessed by many mining families, including the Halls, was often much better than the dwellings in which they lived. There was a distinct contrast between the external and internal appearance of the colliery houses during the 1840s. The proggy mats brought from Hetton were laid on the flag floor in the living room, the fireplace was black-leaded, and their brass fender set it off a treat. Ornaments were unloaded and set around the room. Their mahogany grandmother clock had pride of place on the kitchen wall and a much sought-after dess bed, also mahogany, placed against the back wall. The fold-away bed looked just like a cupboard by day but provided a bed for the girls at night. With the oil lamp on the table lit and with a cheery glow from the fire, this now looked a very desirable residence. Until, as the Halls found out later, once the fire and the lamp went out, the cockroaches came out to play. The colliery houses were noted for this infestation due to their dampness. The family had lived with this inconvenience in Hetton and learned that to keep them away they had to keep a candle burning throughout the night.

Bill went to sign on at the pit the next day. A colliery official read out the rate of pay and conditions available to those who had assembled. The Pitman's Bond stated that he was signing to be employed from 5 April 1837 to 4 April 1838. The Bond was a service agreement for each miner, what we would call a contract today. It was read out at the 'signing' by the viewer of the pit as most of the men couldn't read or write. Once the men heard the terms on offer, it was up to them whether or not they signed it. The first to sign received 10s, the second 10s 6d, the third 5s and all the rest 2s 6d. The men hated the system as they felt the Bond was unreasonable, it laid out rules about their working and living arrangements and it highlighted that the coal owner had control over all aspects of their lives. Any miner who broke the Bond was liable to arrest, trial and imprisonment. The information in the 1837–38 Bond was much the same as any other Bond and all favoured the coal owner.

Some 578 miners signed the Thornley Bond in 1837 with their cross, indicating their inability to write.



Life in Thornley was much the same as life in Hetton for Hannah and her sister. As a dressmaker, the 15-year-old Hannah was sent out to farms for two weeks at a time. She stayed with the family and in preparation for her stay, the farmer's wife would have prepared a pile of tasks that she wanted completing. This could be mending, making or reshaping, all done by hand-sewing.

Hannah felt so grown up carrying out her needlework tasks; she was good at it and could make direct copies of clothes she had seen without making a pattern. She loved going to Sunderland with her mother to collect thread and other supplies from Mr Binns' haberdashery in High Street, and she always made a careful mental note of dresses on display in the window or on advertisements hung around the shop. Dressmaking was deemed more important than cleaning or laundering in the colliery village, so Hannah would probably have felt proud of herself and her achievements. Her mother, Annie, was well known to farmer's wives in the Durham area and worked out a rota for Hannah to follow in the Thornley area and also around Hetton. Her mother continued to work at home in her seamstress role and was well regarded throughout the district for making quality clothing. Hannah's sister, Mary, only 7 at the time of the move to Thornley, was also receiving training as a dressmaker from her mother. This cottage industry must have set the Halls apart from their neighbours, as they were not totally reliant on pay from the pit as most families were.

Women were not encouraged to work outside the home but many did as it was necessary to eke out the family budget. They often took on seasonal work on farms, cleaning and laundering; anything that would bring money into the home. Many families took in a lodger to provide extra income, and while it was inconvenient to share their space with a stranger, the lodger's rent would be useful if the pit was laid off.

Shortly after their arrival in Thornley, the Halls were to witness the disruption and riots caused by two Chartist activists who visited the village with the intention of educating the men about the unfair treatment they received from the owners and offering a way in which to fight this oppression.

Chartism was a national protest movement that had particular strongholds in the north of England. The People's Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic. They wanted the vote for every man aged 21 and older, a secret ballot in any election and no property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow constituencies to return a man of their choice, not because of how much land he owned. They wanted payment for members so working men could afford to stand for Parliament. The Chartists also demanded equal constituencies so that all areas were represented equally, and annual Parliamentary elections so bribery and intimidation would be kept to a minimum.

Chartism came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The Reform Bill of 1831–32 and the New Poor Law of 1834 had both been seen as a betrayal of the working classes. The Chartists had a strong message, but its delivery let the movement down. The leadership was strong but as this was a nationwide movement there weren't enough leaders to get the message around the country and the job of doing so was devolved to those with oratory skills. Unfortunately, the message was sometimes distorted and Chartists became known for their bullying and violent tactics, which in turn led to the downfall of the organisation.

The People's Charter was not enacted in the 1840s and in the shortterm Chartism failed, but it was a movement founded on an optimism that was eventually justified. It was a powerful assertion of the rights of working people, creating in them a long-term self-confidence and self-reliance. However, the demands of the Charter weren't passed into law until long after the movement ended.

At a meeting in Thornley in March 1839, the Chartists enrolled sixty new members, a significant number being well-known Primitive Methodists. Methodism was very strong in Thornley as it was one of the most isolated mining communities. It offered miners the opportunity to attend classes, meetings, discussions and fund-raising activities. It also became a school for self-help. The chapel gave the miners some of their first experience of music, literature and philosophy, and was often their first social centre. They drew together at the chapel and found strength in their weaknesses.


Excerpted from "Women of the Durham Coalfield in the 19th Century"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Margaret Hedley.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 New Beginnings,
2 New Arrivals,
3 New Regime,
4 Striking Miners,
5 Upheaval,
6 New World,
7 More Changes,
8 Sorrow, Celebrations and Decisions,
9 Moving on and Moving Back,
10 Back to the Beginning,
11 Trouble in Twos,
12 Here Come the Brides,

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